If you are as Desi as we are, then you know what we’re talking about. The used milk packets washed and stuck neatly on the tiles to dry, the MAHA plastic bag that stored all the other plastic bags, the half flush tank rule. Every Indian household was built along with at least one of these things as their fundamental practices. What we all grew to term ‘sustainable’ and cool, our moms have been doing since time immemorial. Prepare to walk down the memory lane with us and beware, you may want to call your mom after.
You’d think it belonged in the bin right after it was cut open and the contents let out. Joke’s on you. You, along with the rest of us, grew up watching those milk packets washed till the only trace of milk was the label and then stuck on to the kitchen tiles. In fact, there never would have been a day when the kitchen tiles didn’t have these packets stuck. And not without reason. The milk packets became disposal units for wet kitchen garbage. They doubled as protection to save our lunch bags from oil spills. There weren’t any fancy coasters underneath the oil jar. But, mom wouldn’t have stains in her kitchen too. Guess, what helped? THE MILK BAGS!
There’s no such thing as saving too much water and our moms knew that better than anyone else. She’d wash vegetables (because pesticide = harmful) and then use that water to water the plants in the backyard. While we sit and mush over how adorable that was, get this. Some of our moms asked us to use half the flush tank for nature’s calls. Big head showers in the bathroom? Ain’t nobody got time for that. 1 bucket of water, 2 mugs before soap, zero wastage during the soaping and 3 mugs to wash it all off. Believe it or not, this was a thing.
Indian moms simply do not believe that food can be thrown. In fact, so staunch is their belief that when they cook, its almost as if she’s got everyone’s stomach measured. Not a morsel remains and if it does, she would still whip up something amazing with it for breakfast the next day. Idly became idly upma, daal became daal chawal, rotis were served with jam. No meals were wasted and no food was heartlessly thrown away. Next time you’re on the verge of throwing away food, remember your mom’s practice and her glare.
Long before it was cool to pool, Indian moms would extensively trust and use only public transport to get anywhere in the city. Even if it meant starting two hours earlier than required and getting where you wanted in the nick of time. Fortunately, though, that practice has lived on. Think of all the flights and trains you would have missed had it not been for mumma’s reminders. It’s almost scary to imagine how our moms pulled off traveling in local trains and buses, with us in tow. We probably gave them as hard a time as any. Really puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?
You’d give it an expiry date of one day. Your mom had other ideas. The linen closet with dirty shelves became ten times more usable because of the humble layer of newspaper on it. Who needed glazed sheets and plastic to cover their notebooks? Newspapers worked just fine and they also added a bookish, casual quirk. Blotting paper was a mythical thing and pooris, bhajjis, vadas were all let to drip their excess oil on these humble scraps of expired worldly information.
Not once would you have seen your mother throw out an old piece of clothing. If it was tattered, even better. They could be ripped up into tiny little pieces and voila, the home has multiple dusting cloths. The comfortable cotton ones were stitched as pillowcases and cushion covers. While adding a nice ethnic touch to the house, most of us always remember the feeling of home when we cuddled into one of those pillows. Two or three sarees stitched together made for the most comfortable quilt. Our clothes were like cats- they had 9 lives.
India is one of the brightest countries (there are many ways to interpret this). Our moms would be willing to sign this petition and send it for approval. No functioning Desi household was allowed to have the lights on from morning until after the sun had set. Switching off the lights and fans in every room we carelessly walked out of became part of her job description. Even with air conditioners, our moms believed that keeping the temperature very low would cause a spike in the electricity bill because you were proving you could afford too much chill. Most of us remember phases of extreme cold and sweaty breakouts through the night, thanks to our moms’ adventures with the AC intervals and her ideas.
Remember how ma would use all the plastic coke bottle, fill it up with soil and plant a nice climber in it? Remember how it made the garden look a hundred times cooler? We’d have been embarrassed then, but looking at our gardens with little plastic pots, one can only wonder where we went wrong. Old clothes were stitched into bags or baskets and they always added an extra charm to the house.
Every birthday party was the Black Friday sale for the desi mom. Boxes and cartons of all different sizes, with the exact measure of wrapping paper (from the box), it was a dream come true. For all subsequent birthdays the following year, these boxes and wrapping papers would make several appearances. It’s almost easy to picture the adorable sight of our moms glaring at us to wait until the guests leave, before opening the boxes. Then, she’d cut through the tape on the wrapping paper with painstaking patience. The boxes, ribbons and the wrapping paper were all stored, probably in the cupboard underneath the television.
This is true on levels we cannot even begin to explain. The skin and the peels of vegetables became compost for the garden. The fiber on coconuts was used to wash off stubborn stains on vessels. Cut and squeezed lemons were rubbed on faces that required ‘refreshment’. The water used to wash raw rice became part of the fodder for cattle. Orange peels were dried and powdered for home facials. Used tea leaves became compost again.
And a bonus point no.11....
The shampoo bottle that should have been thrown out days ago will be on your bathroom shelf. If you remember shaking it and hearing free liquid flow in it, congratulations, you’ve used the dilute, water shampoo too. Toothpaste never really gets over and our moms would roll it right out of the tube with the rolling pin if she had to. She wouldn’t give it a rest until she was sure she had gotten every last drop out.
We’ve all probably grown up and come far from all these little practices that made our houses homes. But do we ever really grow out of it? Or should we, no matter how embarrassed it made us feel back then? After all that talk about the minimal millennial, it’s only fair we credit our roots. If sustainability ever becomes a campaign and a world movement, guess who could be its President? Every Indian mother ever.
This article was contributed by Janardhan Pokala. Coming from the world of advertising, he's now on a quest to spread the message of veganism, compassion and love. He enjoys cycling, lifting and sitting by himself with a book and tea. Check out his work here.